I can't stand to look in mirrors. That's not me. What's wrong with me?
January 16, 2020 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Queer mefites and/or mefites with some mental health background, can I draw on your experience to help me understand what's happening in my head?

Firstly: you are not my doctor or therapist, yes, understood.

I can't bear to see myself. I avoid my bathroom mirror and when I can't avoid it entirely I at least avoid my eyes. I hate seeing pictures of myself, used to refuse to allow them entirely but I realize they're for my friends and not for me, so as long as I don't have to look at them I put up with it. When I do go out I often do so at night because I feel less seen then. I used to use a picture of myself as an avatar online but I had to get rid of it because it was staring back at me whenever I opened my laptop or saw it next to my comments online. I got in trouble at a previous job because I refused to unblock my webcam during a remote meeting.

I just don't identify with... this. This thing I see. I don't like it. I don't want to see it. I don't relate to it. I feel like I'm trapped in it.

Mental health background: I have PTSD / generalized anxiety disorder, largely due to childhood trauma and abuse (physical, sexual, emotional). The anxiety is moderately "controlled" with Wellbutrin in that I am usually calm at home and sometimes functional, though I still have significant executive function issues. I use Klonopin when the anxiety surges up or when I can't avoid particularly stressful situations (meeting new people, job interview, or sometimes just getting out and running an errand that seems impossible). I've also been diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder and have tried various things, most recently prozac, though I haven't found anything yet that seems very effective. I stopped taking the prozac because I didn't feel like I was getting enough positive to outweigh the negative (tired, weight gain).

I read sometimes about people's experience with learning that they are trans and a lot of it seems so familiar. Most recently the comments by anem0ne and PhoBWanKenobi in this thread really resonate with me, in particular this from PhoBWanKenobi :
Maybe you fantasize about having no body, avoiding physical touch like massage or getting your haircut because it reminds you that you have a body. "I peel off my skin and expose wires in place of sinew," I wrote the night after I lost my virginity, never connecting it with trans feelings. I sent someone a picture recently, Dr. Manhattan as a disembodied brain and spine. "#transmood."
My gender and sexuality are sometimes confusing to me. I'm AMAB and as far as I know I present as a typical cishet guy. I have zero interest in men sexually but I am attracted to women, in principle at least since I very rarely act on that attraction. I have male friends but my closest friends are usually women. I've joked with friends that I'm a lesbian in a man's body and some days that feels pretty close to truth. I'm pretty sure I don't want to *be* a woman necessarily, though if I had been born a woman I think I might have been happier and more comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it's more that the idea of transitioning is overwhelming, especially because I'm not young, but being a woman doesn't seem like the right answer either, not exactly.

A lot of days I wish I didn't have to be anything at all. I'm most comfortable in situations where my physical existence, the reality of my body, is tangential. I spent a lot of time (too much time) online, and I appreciate that online I'm not a cishet guy, I'm not this lump of rotting meat, I'm just whatever self I sketch out with my mind and language. If I could transplant my self into a computer and live there, I think I'd like that. Some days I wish I could transplant myself into a tree and live there, but at least in a computer I could interact with friends and have an ocean of information to swim in. (Maybe I'd spend vacations as a tree.)

More often than not, especially these last few years, sexuality seems like a foreign language that I took in high school but barely recognize anymore. I thought maybe this was due to years of antidepressants like prozac shutting down my sex drive, but having come off prozac it doesn't seem like much has changed. I think a lot of it comes down to dysmorphia. Even if I met a woman and hit it off, the idea of physical intercourse, of imposing this body into the space of someone I like, is... distasteful. I imagine sex with me, with this body, from someone else's perspective, and it's repulsive. I wouldn't want to do that to someone I cared about. I'm lonely, though, and I like the idea of having someone special in my life, I like the idea of romance or at least intimate partnership. And as much as the idea of physical intimacy seems not appealing right now, I imagine sex could be a part of that in the same way that I let friends take my picture, with the understanding that it's not really for or about me. I'm not sure how to even start exploring in that direction though.

Is this what it feels like to be asexual or agender? Is dysmorphia a part of that, in the same way I understand it is for trans folks? I've read a little about this but I have to admit what I've really been doing is skimming, looking for experiences or descriptions that resonate with me in the same way some of the trans experiences I've heard about have resonated, and I haven't found that yet in any reading about ace folks. And yet I'm pretty sure I'm not trans, so...?

In summary: I hate the physical reality of my body and can't relate to it as anything other than a beat up vehicle that I'm trapped in. I'd like to understand whether my issues with my body represent a fundamental disconnect between my gender and my sex (or lack of sex) - like, these wires are crossed and once we get them lined up properly, presto, dysmorphia goes away, happily ever after - or if it's more likely that the things wrong with me are just more of the same mental illness I've been fighting my whole life, things that I need to address through therapy or meds. Or maybe it's both? Or neither?

Your suggestions and input are welcome, even if it's only sharing your own experiences along these lines so I have more data points to consider. Thanks for your help and for reading all this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
-I feel like you're conflating dysphoria and dysmorphia. Can you be more specific?
-Are you physically fit? I used to avoid mirrors until I lost weight, then I kind of fell in love with mirrors, which became confusing in retrospect when I later discovered the dysphoria.
-"if I had been born a woman I think I might have been happier and more comfortable in my own skin." -- I really hesitate to push anyone toward a certain identity, and obviously you don't know how to describe yours yet, but don't you have to admit that this is kinda the literal definition of what it means to be trans?
posted by Sterros at 8:32 PM on January 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

I feel this. My guess is dissociation, which isn’t uncommon with early childhood trauma. I appreciate and identify a lot with similar descriptions of the trans experience. But I think that’s because gender dysphoria causes dissociation as a coping mechanism, while I dissociate for trauma reasons.

Here’s an article talking about how common the phenomenon is in dissociative disorders. There’s current thought that dissociative disorders are inherently trauma disorders, which might more accurately dial into your trauma symptoms.
posted by politikitty at 9:57 PM on January 16, 2020 [12 favorites]

This was me for nearly all my life, including PTSD from childhood abuse, nebulous feelings about gender identity, and total reflection avoidance (I would cover mirrors, make sure I never got out of the shower unless the mirror was totally fogged, and I refused to allow my spouse to buy a full-length mirror for our home).

I figured out a maybe three or four years ago that I'm non-binary, and a little over a year ago I made changes to my physical appearance that mean I now look a lot more androgynous. The mirror problem completely went away when I made those external changes, and I now feel mostly neutral, sometimes positive, about looking at myself in a mirror. I don't shrink in horror from my own reflection, and I get a deep sense that I am looking at "me" now, rather than looking at a person who is failing to be the cis woman that I felt society demanded and expected of me based on the body I was born in.

It's a weird one, in that when I was still in girlmode, I wouldn't have immediately known via thought experiments that looking like this would fix my problem with looking at myself, nor did I get a deep sense of foreknowing that I was going to be a lot more comfortable with my future appearance/gender expression. It was more like I wanted to experiment with how I looked, and when I did that I was like, oh, right, that's me and it doesn't feel gross and weird to look at myself when I look like this. But I don't think I could have predicted accurately before I made those changes that no longer hating and fearing my own reflection was going to be one of the outcomes; I had to ride it to see.
posted by terretu at 1:52 AM on January 17, 2020 [13 favorites]

I think of the body I inhabit as a flesh suit - I inhabit it, mostly unwillingly and only because there's no other choice, but it's not part of me or in any way related to me. I also hate seeing my own image (because it's not me), and started streaming in large part to force my way past that - to make myself look at myself, because this flesh suit is what I've got, and I need to adapt to that fact if I'm to live in this world. I carefully curate as much of my appearance as I can - blue hair in a mohawk, fanciful earrings, clothing in a strict color scheme and adhering to a theme - because it's something about the flesh suit that I can control, and that makes me feel better about this whole mess.

After careful consideration, I've decided (for the moment, at least) that I identify as trans and non-binary - which seems like an odd combination, but fits the fact that... while I don't know precisely what I am? I do know that I am not this. Whatever I am, it is not the flesh suit, but the being inside the flesh suit. I'm not female; I'm not male; I am the Wayward Plane, whatever that means and for whatever that's worth.

I can't tell you where your journey will take you, but... clearly it's taking you somewhere other than where you've been, and wherever you're headed? that's fine. Don't be afraid of the journey, or the destination.
posted by WaywardPlane at 2:26 AM on January 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

Maybe it's helpful to think of this as exploration and experimentation - you have a body, it's necessary for getting about in the world. You also have choices about the way you inhabit your body and present it to the world. Finding good guides can help that be less painful or scary... even joyful and liberating.

For me, finding a therapist skilled with transgender/non-binary folks helped immensely. I'm not saying that's what's going on for you but it does sound like you're looking to understand your relationship to your body and to gender. With a lot of talk therapy I was able to see things clearly that let me find the first real peace in my body I've ever known. By real, I mean a peace not dependent on someone else affirming or validating my existence (which is a lot to ask of a partner and one big reason all my relationships came to messy ends).

Podcasts were also helpful for me. I'd listen to stories and see what resonated with me and what didn't. Maybe a particular word or phrase or experience. Gender Reveal is a great one about exploring what gender means and many ways to experience it.

Feel free to mefi-mail me if you want.
posted by kokaku at 4:39 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sexual abuse can create abhorrence of one's body. It's a really common consequence of sexual abuse. You might be trans, but this all sounds like it could just as easily be a reaction to your body being used in ways that were wrong.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:53 AM on January 17, 2020 [9 favorites]

I deem the above comments good based on them being helpful for me. I opened up to a friend last night about the new developments in my own non binary/dismorphia experiencd.

I can’t advise on the severity of your mirror aversion, but I do want to address the note about how you’re using who you’re attracted to to determine your identity. Don’t! I’m DFAB and (sexually) queer, but mostly attracted to men. So while my distaste for the cis/het tenor of society made me lean harder toward my “gay woman” part of my identity, my subconscious accaptacd of that same cis/het part of society kept me from accepting the “gay man” part of my identity that feels more accurate.

Last night I found the gender Wikia by googling a term I thought might be relevant to me, and found so! many! more! words to describe gender identity, especially in the non-binary/agender part of the spectrum.

Lately, be prepared to find paradoxes as you sort through what is you and what is not. I 100% am not a woman, I am 100% not femme, and yet a chosen part of my identity that feels right for me is wearing a skirt (of a specific feels-like-me style) every day. Putting on a pair of jeans almost feels as wrong as putting on a frilly top. It may prevent society at large from ever reading me as androgynous or demigender, and I think I can be okay with that and with being misgendered by most people as long as my friends and the people close to me can accept and embrace my true identify.
posted by itesser at 6:08 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Dissociation from your body, or feeling that the body you see is not *you*, is a possible symptom of trauma. Because during times of extreme stress the human brain just stops being quite 100% connected with the body it's in. It seems like a bad thing now but in the moment it's a pretty good survival tactic. But if it happens frequently enough the connection becomes weaker to the point where it's easily broken by just random things.

If that sounds like it might be relevant to you then I think you need to find a therapist who is trauma-informed (I don't think that should exclude therapists who know about gender stuff). That seems to be the keyword to look for to find services which don't assume every problem is chemically-based. There's more to mental health than imbalances of stuff.
posted by harriet vane at 6:48 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Self-image problems are known to be an effect of abuse. Medication can help, but one-to-one therapy or peer group support guided by a counsellor trained to work with survivors of sexual abuse could help.

RAINN has a free online survivor group chat and, as a male survivor, you can confidentially chat online to a counsellor for up to 60 minutes. If you give any identifiers, such as name, age or location, counsellors are required to make break confidentiality and make a safeguarding report. The choice yours to make.
posted by parmanparman at 7:07 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Your body was weaponized against you when you were developing and growing and when your identity was being set up / set in place vis-a-vis sexual and physical abuse. Your internal experience was severed from your external body as a mode of self protection- aka dissociation. I think what you're experiencing is a normal response to this sort of trauma. I have a similar trauma background and I used to feel this way in my early 20s. It sounds like you've got the medication piece locked down which is good because you should not have to suffer and mitigating that as best as possible is significant.

Because your body was a tool for someone else to harm you and completely disempower you, it would seem you're carrying around the concept that your body is the problem and the cause of why you were abused. This is of course not true, as the cause of the harm against you was the person/people who abused you. But you're still living within this "shell" as a way to stay safe.

So you need to figure out a way to connect your identity, your core emotional identity, to your body. It's actually a lifelong project for many people who have been mistreated for a variety of reasons, such as race, gender, disability, etc. I myself view this as a lifelong project. How can you connect your internal self with your body? How can you feel like your body is a way to feel good, as opposed to a way that you experience harm only?

Obviously therapy, perhaps a trauma therapist.
You will need clear goals as this will take much work. How do you want to feel? How do you want to look? How do you want to handle your emotions around the abuser/s? I experienced a lot more disassociation when I was suppressing, deep in my core, anger the the abuser/s. When I allowed myself to feel that anger, I felt in my body quite literally ruptured. I felt like I was breaking out of a caccoon, which sounds pretty crazy I guess but I was literally moving into a more self actualized version of myself. My body was both the same and different. So perhaps explore what you may be withholding, if anything.

This sounds silly, perhaps, but the gym helped me a lot. Working out helped me. Dance classes helped me. Acupuncture helped me. Having sex helped me. Getting my hair done even helped me, because I feel like I am take ownership over this fairly arbitrary thing called my body, this set of genes I inherited which is also the archeological site of abuse where I excavated the horrors visited upon me. Integrating my body through movement, acupuncture needles, changing my hair color as I wished, really thinking about what clothes to wear to make me feel good, treating my body with kindness.

Remember that you and your body are not the problem, and what happened to you isn't your fault, and you're entitled to whatever anger, grief, sadness, ambivalence, etc that you feel regarding this severing that happened from your soul to your body.
Your soul is in hiding from your body and treating your body as the enemy. It isn't.

This could be off the mark, and I'm also writing off the cuff a bit as I'm at work. I wish the best for you. You are not a mistake, you aren't the problem, nor is your body. link to a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood video that I hope will touch you.
posted by erattacorrige at 9:40 AM on January 17, 2020 [10 favorites]

I have had this issue but just with photographs, not mirrors, since I was about 12 (around the point of some trauma in my life and a really bad 7th grade photo). The longer you avoid mirrors and photographs the more alienated your idea of physical self becomes from the reality of your physical self - the problem gets worse with time and continued avoidance. I had to force myself to start looking at photos of myself right after they were taken no matter how much it disturbed me. I've actually made a decent amount of progress in a fairly short amount of time and was recently able to look at a driver's license photo I had been carrying face down in my wallet for a year and recognize that the photo was of me and that I looked okay. I don't know if I'd necessarily recommend that course to you and would by all means recommend therapy if you have access to it - but that is how I, as someone with similar issues and no time/money for therapy, dealt with it. Best of luck to you! This is a tough problem to have and people tend to not be very sensitive to it in this age of photo documenting everything.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 10:27 AM on January 17, 2020

PS: check out the book "the body keeps the score" by vessel van set kolk. This book is essential reading for people who have internalized and subsequently externalized via the body the experience of trauma, especially if the trauma happened at the site of the body. You are worth the work and care.
posted by erattacorrige at 11:12 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Please, do not try exposure therapy without the assistance of a trauma trained therapist. The difficulty with dissociative disorders is that your brain begins to use dissociation as a coping mechanism for smaller triggers. So while it’s considered normal for the fear response to burn out, and you can tolerate the trigger, you risk making your nervous system more fractured.

You can eventually build up a tolerance again. But you have to do that from a profound sense of safety. And when you have had a childhood without safety, it’s hard for your body to know what that means. I would get frustrated I wasn’t making progress, because it was just a quiet mall, it was the gentlest of errands, and still I found myself dissociating when I hit the 90 minute mark. And my therapist would have to remind me that while I might intellectually know it’s safe, I still need to slow down to the point I emotionally feel safe. These are developmental milestones you didn’t get, and they’re created by a very slow process of repetition and reliability.

I’m currently finding luck in VR. I can take up space and interact with people, and log off into the comfort of my apartment at a moments notice. It does not begin to address the issue I have of feeling foreign in my body. But I’m trying to to be accepting that my issues with having a meat sack are far more deeply rooted in it being just one more way I feel too much in the world. Knowing a thing is very different from believing a thing.
posted by politikitty at 2:54 PM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been there. Actually, I spent most of my life there. It wasn't always terrible, it went up and down, but I really never could look at pictures of myself. And I was really mad when I moved into my current apartment and discovered the medicine cabinet had a mirrored interior, as well as the front of it, because my default for years had been to leave the cabinet open so I wouldn't have to see my damn face all the time.

I just want to say: you don't have to live like this. I had gotten so used to it that I just thought I was stuck with feeling this way. But that's not true. Regardless of what's causing this, there are ways to heal it.

I'm trans, and also non-binary. I feel like it may be important for you to know it's an option to be both, contrary to most mainstream narratives of transness. In order to be trans, you don't need to know you want to fully transition medically and socially to being a binary woman. For me, even just cutting my hair and starting to wear men's clothes (I'm AFAB) was a fucking revelation in terms of how I saw myself, and starting to actually feel comfortable in my skin. (I'm now on a low dose of HRT, and have socially transitioned)

I say this because a lot of what you say does sound ... pretty trans to me. Especially how you talk about sex - it rings similar to my experience in some ways, but even more, it sounds like what I've heard trans feminine people who are primarily attracted to women say about how they felt about sex before they realized they were trans. And the wishing to be free of your corporeal form - yeahhhhh. I used to very chirpily joke about being a "brain in a jar."

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started exploring this stuff is to focus less on what is the source of my dysphoria (for me I'd spent years assuming it was internalized misogyny, and it was really hard to detangle gender dysphoria from that, as well as my own childhood traumas), and more on what makes me feel better. So I just tried a lot of stuff, and kept doing the things that felt good, and it became pretty clear pretty quick that a LOT of my "mysterious issues" were actually dysphoria. Honestly, I don't want to make it seem like transitioning is some magic answer to all of life's problems, but if you are trans ... oh my god, the right transition steps can fix a lot of stuff that would otherwise seem intractable.

I also wanna say: it's possibly to both be trans AND be suffering from the effects of childhood trauma. One unfortunately does not negate the other. But if you possibly have both going on, it seems like it would be really helpful to see a therapist who is experienced at working with both. I would NOT see any therapist right now who is not trans-competent, because even if you are not trans, it seems like you've got some gender stuff to untangle. The right therapist will be awesome at this, and the wrong one just may be way out of their element. Cis people who are not used to dealing with gender identity stuff can have some really wrong-headed and damaging ideas, even if they are well-intentioned.

One more thing: there's a lot of confusing of dysphoria and dysmorphia here. That's understandable because the words are similar and they seem similar on the surface. But they are very different and the treatment plans for both are pretty much the opposite. And the treatment plans for body dysmorphia have been shown not to work for gender dysphoria. So that's why it's important to see a therapist who is well-versed in gender identity and can help you figure out if it is gender dysphoria.

Good luck. I have a lot of hope for you. I'm also happy to chat more if you want to - just memail me.
posted by the sockening at 3:48 PM on January 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'll nth the idea of dissociation from the trauma. A trauma specialist helped me more than I could ever imagine. I've hated mirrors for years and years. Part of it was not putting the image of me together with me. I'm not even sure how to describe it.

It didn't help that I got up to 440 pounds before having surgery and getting down to 165. There are very few pictures of me between the time I finished high school and my first bariatric surgery. I can probably number them in the dozens over 20+ years. Last year, I decided to work on seeing myself as a physical person. I decided to use an iOS app called Project 365 that lets you take a picture a day. I worked on it with my therapist because despite what I weighed, I looked in the mirror and saw a horrible fat ugly woman. There were days when I needed a text from Dr. D to take the picture. I've been lucky that she has been available by text. When I started, I took the picture, I didn't really focus on my image. I kinda looked off in the distance. I looked at the picture only enough to make sure it was pretty much in focus. Then the next time I saw Dr. D we would talk about the pictures. It took a decent amount of time before I could take the picture and look at it by myself. I don't mind having my picture taken anymore, and I've actually taken a few selfies. BUT.... I couldn't have done this on my own.

The way you describe your sexuality is much how I describe mine. However, I can't even imagine intimacy. After a lot of thought and therapy I've come to the conclusion that I'm asexual.

Like other's have said, I'm happy to chat more about this via MeMail if you want.
posted by kathrynm at 8:55 PM on January 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm glad my words were helpful to you. I really feel like we need these mirrors. I would caution you about taking advice here or elsewhere from people who have not experienced gender dysphoria (yes, dysphoria, not dysmorphia) because it's really really easy to be led astray from the truth about yourself, society is often complicit in trans people self-closeting, and contemplating being trans is scary, involves a lot of change, danger, and potential loss. That said, beginning to ask these questions means that you're beginning to contemplate meeting your true self, whoever they are, and that's a beautiful thing.

I can't offer you any answers, but I have a few thought experiments:

-When you play video games, what does your avatar look like?
-Sex as yourself feels wrong. If you could be a woman and have sex, how would you feel about it?
-If you could start life over again, what gender would you chose?
-If someone asked you at 8 if you would rather grow up to be a man or a woman, what would your answer have been?
-Have you ever explored drag or gender non-conforming dressing? Have you ever felt curious about it and denied it to yourself for whatever reason?
-If you could wake up tomorrow and be a woman, how would you feel?
-Do you think that deep down, all men are disgusted by the idea of being men and so therefore your feelings are normal? (hint: no, they're not, and if your brain is telling you they are, your brain is lying to you.)

Take a look at reddit's egg_irl. An egg is a trans person who hasn't "hatched"--realized they're trans--yet. Does anything there feel familiar or relatable to you?

Being trans does not mean that you are necessarily binary (though much of your story sounds like a discomfort with your current gender rather than a real preference to have no gender or multiple genders). Being trans does not mean you need to medically transition. There are many, many ways to be trans. However, here are some things you might find yourself saying to yourself when you contemplate these questions that actually have fuck all to do with whether you are actually trans:

-I'd make an ugly woman.
-No one will have sex with me as a woman.
-It's dangerous to be trans.
-I can just continue to pretend I'm not trans and live a normal life.
-Men suck so of course I think being a man sucks.
-I can just treat the symptoms of my transness like depression and nothing has to change.
-It's safer to pretend I'm not trans so I'm not going to do that.
-If I came out as trans, [family member] will disown me.
-I'm just a poseur. I'm not really trans. I'm fetishizing lesbians.

Those kinds of thoughts are toxic, really toxic and also really, really common for trans people and not a single one of them means you're not trans.

Being trans is hard. It is. I'm not going to tell you it's easy. I lost my mother by coming out. I know how hard it can be. So much of our society says that everyone--not just trans people--are supposed to accept being less than happy with ourselves so as not to upset the status quo. But you have so much ahead of you if you let yourself love yourself. This is your only life. Your one life. There's no being a woman in your next life. From what you've written here, you are probably not a man right now. In this life. You can find ways to love yourself. You can experience euphoria for the first time. You can feel like yourself, your whole, embodied true self, for the very first time. You can put on women's clothes (your clothes), make-up, have sex like and as a woman, whatever you need to do. You can be happy now, starting today. That's a choice that is wholly in your power to make.

Please me-mail me if you need anything at all.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:08 PM on January 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Also I'd just note that being trans and closeted in and of itself is trauma. I have trauma from other things, but a lot of that trauma was compounded and complicated by being trans in a family and society that is not great with transness. I could not even begin to chip away at that trauma until I realized where it all was coming from.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:09 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Re: previous poster: view egg_irl at your own risk. The memes are fire, but the subreddit is a radioactive dysphoria boot camp.
posted by Sterros at 4:28 PM on January 19, 2020

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